For our latest blog @GeorgianLords welcomes Dr Max Skjönsberg (St Andrews) offering some insights into the early philosophical writings of Viscount Bolingbroke, written during the period of his first exile from Britain and after his unhappy involvement with the Jacobite court.
Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) was one of the most prominent public figures in Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century, being ubiquitous in both political and intellectual life between entering Parliament in 1701 and the posthumous publication of his collected Works in 1754. In July 1712, he was raised to the House of Lords, having been made a viscount (although he wanted to be an earl like his one-time ally and now rival Robert Harley, earl of Oxford). While Bolingbroke in many ways was an archetypal member of the British political class, he was also someone who managed to isolate himself politically on more than one occasion. During his career, he alternated between moving in the circles of power and influence, and periods of isolation and exile. The latter was partly imposed on him, and although he usually tried to escape his phases of seclusion, it was not a state he regretted entirely, at least not always. Bolingbroke had two prominent character traits. He was a man of action and a politician who was fond of power. At the same time, he was also a quintessential eighteenth-century man of letters, drawn to study and contemplation. As a political journalist in the opposition journal The Craftsman in the 1720s and 30s, he combined these two traits and talents. But Bolingbroke did not only write about politics and history, he also wrote poetry, philosophical fragments and, perhaps most notoriously, about religion.
Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile was printed as the second piece in the first volume of his collected works in 1754, edited by his literary executor, the Scottish poet David Mallet. It had been published for the first time two years before together with the Letters on the Use and Study of History. Mallet’s edition dated the Reflections as 1716, but a letter to Jonathan Swift in January 1722, where Bolingbroke said that he had just completed his treatise on exile, suggests that it is a later production.
Whether it was written in 1716 or in the early 1720s, it remains one of Bolingbroke’s earliest writings and probably one of his first, if not his very first, philosophical text. Previously, he had written mainly occasional poetry and on politics. It was written in a period when Bolingbroke was in enforced exile in France. As a leading minister in Queen Anne’s Tory ministry between 1710 and 1714, Bolingbroke had negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 which ended Britain’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. After the death of the queen and the accession of George I, who, as Elector of Hanover, viewed the Peace of Utrecht as a betrayal of Britain’s continental allies, the Tories, who were the peace party, were turned out and the Whigs returned to power. As a result of the Whigs’ vindictive behaviour (not unusual in eighteenth-century politics when ministries changed hands), Bolingbroke lost his nerve and went into exile in France. There he was approached by exiled Jacobites and not long after he accepted the position of Secretary of State to James Francis Edward Stuart, the Pretender, serving the Jacobites during the botched ‘Fifteen’ rebellion. Bolingbroke took much of the flak for the failed rising and was dismissed from the Stuart court in 1716. From then on, he would be mocked by the Whigs for having betrayed two kings in the space of one year.
Bolingbroke’s service at the Stuart court prevented him from returning to Britain. He spent several years writing letters to various people trying to engineer a return, which eventually happened about a decade later. In the meantime, Bolingbroke returned to his second great passion besides politics: his love of letters and study.
Bolingbroke was a towering if controversial political figure and a sharp opposition pen in his lifetime, but his philosophical works, published posthumously, cast a long shadow over his legacy. When Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “Who now reads Bolingbroke, whoever read him through?”, he was indeed referring to Bolingbroke’s philosophical works, and in particular his anti-clerical ones, as Burke would have known that Bolingbroke’s political writings were still widely read and cited. Having previously engaged closely with Bolingbroke’s political journalism, David Hume was disparaging about Bolingbroke’s philosophical works when they appeared for the first time in the 1750s. On the other side of the spectrum, Samuel Johnson told James Boswell that Bolingbroke
was a scoundrel, and a coward: a scoundrel for charging a blunderbuss against religion and morality; a coward, because he had not resolution to fire it off himself, but left half a crown to a beggarly Scotchman [Mallet], to draw the trigger after his death!
In his Dictionary, published the year after Bolingbroke’s collected Works, he gave the example of irony that “Bolingbroke was a pious man.” Bolingbroke’s political career, and especially his Jacobite episode in 1715-16, gave him a great deal of notoriety, but it was actually his posthumous philosophical works which were most controversial in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile have often been dismissed as simply an imitation of Seneca, who is frequently cited in the text (along with others). Much of the text is indeed borrowed from Seneca’s Consolation, which the Roman had written to his mother when he had been exiled by the Emperor Caligula. The thrust of Bolingbroke’s argument is the same as Seneca’s: one should not let one’s happiness be dependent on external events or one’s environment. It is our character and qualities which will determine how external events affect us, and they will have little impact indeed for the virtuous.
But even if much of the content of the Reflections was heavily inspired by and in part an imitation of Seneca’s Stoicism, Bolingbroke added his own gloss by concluding that
in truth there is not so much difference between stoicism reduced to intelligible terms, and genuine orthodox epicureanism, as is imagined.
It was simply ‘rivalship’ which exaggerated the difference between the two ‘sects’. The reason why they, in practice, amounted to the same thing was that living a virtuous life was the highest form of pleasure, and no one could ignore the pleasures of the body. Bolingbroke hails Aristotle for having taken ‘a middle way… and placed happiness in the joint advantages of the mind, of the body, and of fortune’, although Bolingbroke stressed that the last was not equal to the other two. Thus exile, although it had taken Bolingbroke’s title and estate away from him, was not a disaster because he could still enjoy the advantages of the mind and the body.
This argument about the harmony between Stoicism and Epicureanism is very important for eighteenth-century thought. Its depiction as a clash between Stoicism and Epicureanism has been dominant in recent work on the history of eighteenth-century political philosophy, but much of this debate has been a red herring. The problem with this historical metanarrative is that there are very few open espousals of either Stoicism and Epicureanism in the eighteenth century, and the latter in particular was primarily used as an insult.
Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile was in this respect highly representative of eighteenth-century thought, which in general had very little interest in reviving ancient philosophical sects. What Bolingbroke had in common with other eighteenth-century thinkers, including David Hume and Adam Smith, was that he actively sought to go beyond these ancient schools. If there was any philosophical insight he wanted to revive from ancient Greece, it was probably Aristotle’s middle way, and the refusal of choosing between the happiness of the mind and that of the body. In order for us to see this rather simple insight clearly, Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile is an appropriate place to start.